Documentary film-making connecting policymakers to people living in poverty

Posted by & filed under Participation, Participatory Media, Participatory Methodologies, Post-2015.

Led by Real Time, Participate produced a 20-minute documentary film ‘Work with Us’  to influence UN decision-making processes. The film drew stories together in order to powerfully communicate the participatory processes involved, and the importance of their contribution. Film-makers Jackie Shaw and Clive Robertson reflect on the role of documentary film making as a way to engage marginalised groups in informal and formal policy processes.

Our documentary production role involved film-making collaborations with ten Participatory Research Group (PRG) partners and communities in seven countries, to bring together some of participant’s research stories in a visually compelling way to broadcast standard.

The film’s purpose was to use actual experiences to make a case for why dialogue with marginalised groups is needed, how participatory processes can generate missing contextual insight, and how this contributes to the policy agenda in building more equitable working relationships. The stories communicated in the film emerged from the PRG partners’ participatory research processes, and exemplify the importance of their knowledge for development decision-making.

Collaborative film making

Collaboration is central to the participatory practice envisioned within Participate

From the beginning we intended that the documentary would be co-constructed with the groups we visited, and focused on the stories that people wanted to show and tell. It would place them at the centre of communications by filming them where they lived, speaking directly to the audience in their own language.

The stories included in the documentary grew in different ways depending on the context. What happened during film-making responded to the needs of the particular partners, the specific activities they were involved in, and the stage reached in the research processes when the documentary 
visit took place. For example, with PRG partners
the Seed Institute and Spatial Collective in Kenya
 and with Praxis in India, documentary narratives
 were storyboarded as part of participatory video processes. Cross-over 
with film-making visits provided the opportunity to record them on the broadcast equipment to include in documentary. In comparison, Ecoweb’s non-visual participatory research in the Philippines had already been completed – so we ran shorter participatory video processes with participants to build trust and working relationships and raise production awareness before filming.

Our intention to maximise ground level story authorship during documentary production, was reliant on the PRG partnerships, and the relationships they brokered with people living in poverty. The challenges of adapting the film-making process to context also arose in part from differences in the participatory approaches used, the stage of the research, the way the PRG partners perceived Real Time’s potential contribution, and how we responded. Learning from experience during pilot documentary collaborations with Praxis <link> in India and UAM-X in Mexico <link> enabled us to develop practice guidance that informed contextual adaptation in later visits.

Reflecting on the implicit dynamic created by our position as outside film-makers, we concluded that we were more likely to engender trust and informed consent, if there was at least a short interactive process between Real Time film-makers and participants living in poverty. This was to establish collaborative relationships before production, even on film-making only visits. This was also important to us in fulfilling our commitment to reflect people’s realities, because it gave space for film-makers and those who appeared to get to know each other, and allowed people’s most pressing issues, feelings and perspectives on what was needed to emerge.

We defined Real Time’s documentary making activity as collaborative to distinguish it from participatory production. We used the term ‘collaborative’ in recognition of the relationships with PRG partners that enabled us to build film-making partnerships with people living in poverty, and also to acknowledge the co-construction of the resulting materials with the communities concerned. However, documentary production activities also reflected a much more typical film-making dynamic: we took 
on a responsibility to produce and direct the process in order to deliver a broadcast standard product communicating the meta-narrative to decision makers within the timeframe. As such, we encountered a tension: how to maintain group narrative ownership of the stories filmed, whilst maximising the opportunity to influence international policy through communicating the films wider message.


Knowledge from the margins This blog is an edited version of Jackie and Clive’s contribution to Participate’s latest publication ‘Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence’. The anthology is a collection of honest accounts and critical reflections on participatory approaches to influencing policy – including the engagement with the post-2015 process.


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